My seven-year-old son got a great school report and announced that he wanted to eat zebra to celebrate. He is ego involved in having consumed more odd things than anyone else in his class and so it was that we ended up at The Carnivore in the Misty Hills Hotel, Muldersdrift.
It would be foolish to be a food or décor snob about The Carnivore. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting myself into to. Everyone knows The Carnivore. The Muldersdrift branch is the younger brother of the more famous Carnivore in Nairobi, Kenya. Both restaurants bill themselves in their publicity material as “Africa’s greatest eating experience.” In terms of culinary merit, this claim is so far beyond questionable that it is not worth questioning but since they are both all-you-can-eat offerings it is possible that this epithet indicates quantity not quality.
The South African branch of The Carnivore is housed inside a cavernous, thatched-roof structure that can and frequently does accommodate 500 diners. It is clearly set up for guided groups hosted by someone who knows the way in. I hadn’t been to The Carnivore in over twenty years and as an unescorted visitor I could find no clear point of entry into the restaurant.
At the end of the unlit car-park, there is a giant wooden hippo followed by a congestion of bronze kings (and a queen). Shaka, Mzilikazi, Mogale, Khama, Mosheshwe and the Rain Queen Modjadji are all loitering in the lobby. Madiba and assorted Nguni cow hides, plus a West African regal throne add to the cluttered confusion. In the midst of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign there is discussion as to the lack of alternatives to the settler statues and I momentarily wondered if this was it but quickly concluded that it wasn’t. The statues themselves are inoffensive but they do not inspire awe – which is surely such a statue’s job? A king needs his own area to rule and these guys were all bunched up. Even excluding their being crowded together in the hallway, they are not statuesque – the observer stands eye to eye with the effigies. Those who commissioned and erected the Rhodes and Kruger statues understood the need for their boys to be impressively up there on a plinth surveying all they subdued. They got it that a hero should be doing something impressive; riding a horse, thinking deep thoughts, lighting the darkness of Africa with a flaming torch or some such manly activity. The kings at The Carnivore are all just standing there – none of these great ancestral icons are doing anything exciting. They are all posed as if waiting for a bus.
My son was wearing a fur fabric leopard suit (complete with tail and detachable paws) left over from his school play. Prior to our departure, he had been instructed to change into something appropriate for the restaurant so it had been impossible to fault his logic when he came out of his bedroom dressed as one of the Big Five. Ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot that was not a tour bus but my boy was not the only person dressed in leopard skins. After milling about amongst the kings and wondering if we were allowed to sit on the throne for a while we took a guess and walked down a corridor lined with row upon row of framed awards from long superseded hospitality and tourism regulatory boards. At the end of the corridor we encountered a charming Zulu warrior in full faux leopard skin-laden regalia and so it was that we reached the restaurant. The warrior was serving cocktails from a tray hung around his neck like an old fashioned cigarette girl at the movies. Cocktails are always good and the lime, whisky and honey Dawa (presumably inherited from the Kenyan Carnivore) went along way to smoothing snobbery. Irritations became amusing in the presence of whisky.
We were seated next to the huge, circular charcoal pit that dominates the centre of the restaurant. Exotic game choices such as warthog, impala, hippo, crocodile and a range of bokkies (sable, eland, kudu etc) on epic assagi spikes vied with tamer fare such as pork and mutton for fire space and customer attention. Great hunks of flesh were brought around to the table on spears and carved directly onto our plates. Curiously the spears were carried and carved by chaps in Jazz Age, Mississippi riverboat style white straw boaters not the warriors who restricted themselves to serving cocktails. All around us kindly boater-wearing waiters were explaining to Japanese tourists what they were eating with the help of a picture book. We were informed that the meat offering would continue until we surrendered by lowering the South African flag that sat in the centre of our table.
The leopard got his zebra. The problem with zebra, especially roast zebra, is that it has virtually no fat. The charitable might call its texture robust. The rest of us would call it tough as old boots. Crocodile was better. The white, fish-like meat forked away from the bone easily and the translucent rib bones were fleshy and pleasant enough. It also allowed my boy to add another exotic animal to his consumption list.
The problem with such all-you-can-eat establishments is that it is hard not to take the offer as an implicit challenge. It’s not all you want to eat or even all you choose to eat. It’s all you can eat. The leopard and I were seized with an irrational desire to see how many rounds we could go before someone stopped the fight. There were definitely diminishing returns. By the fourth serving everything started to taste the same. Smell the same. Look the same. We ploughed through a mountain of meat with glazed expressions on our faces. At one point I tried and failed to remember what I was eating. Did I ask for warthog or zebra on my last round? Was that horse radish cream or mayonnaise on my plate?
Sensitive souls can shake their fists and roll their eyes at the combination of cultural cliché and over-cooked meat till kingdom come. Tolerant types can absorb the absurdity and accept The Carnivore as silly but sweet. Both are valid responses. I know this to be true because I felt them in equal measure. My little leopard loved it and is already begging to go back.
The Carnivore 011 950 6000; Misty Hills Hotel. 69 Drift Boulevard, Muldersdrift Estate, Muldersdrift, Johannesburg.